PHILADELPHIA – The Tar Heels have grown quite proficient at cutting down the nets over the last month. First in Washington, D.C. after winning the ACC Tournament, and now in Philadelphia after winning the East Region with an 88-74 victory over Notre Dame. All that’s left is one more set of nets at the Final Four in Houston.
It’s been seven long years since North Carolina last played in a Final Four. Even an Elite Eight appearance seemed like a distant memory prior to Sunday’s tip. This group of Tar Heels had never been beyond the Sweet 16, which seemed unfair at times, given the intense scrutiny this program has endured since this senior class arrived on campus nearly four years ago.
“I’ve never wanted anything in my life for someone else as much as I wanted to get this bunch to the Final Four,” head coach Roy Williams said after the game.
Four long weeks ago, the Hall of Fame head coach said he would give anything for this squad to win a championship of any kind. Since then, UNC has racked up an ACC regular season championship, an ACC Tournament championship and its 15th East Regional title. There’s only one trophy left.
“It hasn’t even hit me yet,” senior guard Marcus Paige said when asked about reaching his first Final Four. “We talked about it as a major goal of ours at the beginning of the year, but to actually be here, in the moment, is so much more special than I even imagined.”
It helps that UNC will likely enter the Final Four as the prohibitive favorite. As well as Oklahoma, Villanova and Syracuse have played on their way to Houston, the Tar Heels are playing like the best team in the country.
“They've got a great vibe about them right now,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said.
Two days after Indiana tried to run with the East Region’s top seed, the Fighting Irish tried the opposite approach, slowing the regional final to a halt. UNC managed 59 possessions, its second-fewest of the season. It didn’t matter.
The Tar Heels showcased their versatility in the ACC Tournament semifinal rout of the Fighting Irish by playing with their small lineup. This time around, UNC displayed a different type of versatility by excelling in its halfcourt offense and beating Notre Dame at its own game.
Brey’s squad shot 55.1 percent (50.0 percent from 3) and averaged 1.3 points per possessions. UNC countered by shooting 61.5 percent, its best ever in a regional final, and averaging 1.5 points per possession.
Whether playing with two bigs or with Theo Pinson at the four, or playing at a track speed or that of a leisurely stroll, the Tar Heels have proven to be simply too good for their opposition on this Final Four run.
Five Tar Heels scored in double figures, paced by Brice Johnson’s 25 points and 12 rebounds. Nate Britt scored early off the bench, Kennedy Meeks provided a boost out of the halftime locker room and Theo Pinson played a key role midway through the second half.
“We’ve got so many guys that are threats,” sophomore forward Justin Jackson said. “Last year, everybody tended to go toward Marcus or Brice. All five guys weren’t necessarily threats in everybody’s eyes. And now we’ve got 6-7-8 threats, so being as deep as we are, that really helps us.”
When Meeks scored his fourth bucket with 15:48 to play, UNC was ahead 51-40. Notre Dame capitalized on a pair of Tar Heel turnovers in sparking a 12-0 run that reversed the momentum. Johnson aided in that spurt, slamming the ball after being whistled for a foul and drawing a technical.
In years past, Williams would have told his team that runs were inevitable and responding was the only choice. He didn’t need to say anything this time.
“I had confidence in my guys, and Marcus took the words right out of my mouth before I could even say it in the timeout,” Williams said. “He said, "Guys, they made runs. It's a game of runs. We're going to make a run.’"
The Tar Heels answered with their own 12-0 run and more, scoring on their next 13 possessions. By the time they were done, UNC’s lead had grown to 77-65 with 4:14 to play.
“That’s just how this 2016 team is,” Paige said. “The 2015 Tar Heels might not have been able to respond to that. We had an 11-point deficit erased in no time. I looked up and I was like, ‘Dang, we’re down one. What just happened?’ But I think the fact that they came back so quickly helped us. Now, it’s like, ‘Okay, we’ve just got to play.’”
The Tar Heels have been doing just that throughout the month of March. Now they need to continue that trend into April to finalize a season that’s been a long time coming.